DIGGSTOWN (1992) ***
James Woods has, to say the least, a unique, idiosyncratic screen persona -- all the more remarkable since more and more leading men are interchangable, homogenized, namby-pamby and characterless.
To say the most, Woods is one of our best actors and the champion manic, frantic, fast talker in American cinema. So it is double the fun then to watch him play both himself and against his own type in "Diggstown."
He plays Gabriel Caine, scammeister and spielmeister par excellence, cooler than a refrigerated cucumber. Even inside the cooler, he's an untiring hustler as he fixes boxing matches and gets wads of greenbacks for arranging escape routes.
Released, he drives to Diggstown, Georgia. Named after legendary heavyweight Charles Macum Diggs, the burg and the county are the fief of John Gillon (Bruce Dern), a character with a menacing smile who owns everybody and operates a gym-arena where unlicensed boxing and betting constitute the town's main activity. Gillon founded his fortune when, while he was Diggs's manager, he bet fraudulently and cruelly against him in what turned out to be the champ's last fight.
Gabriel Caine has been plotting a monumental scam that will take Gillon to the cleaners, and then some. Staked with underworld money, Gabe lays the foundation of his sting in classic fashion, by sending in advance man Fitz, splendidly played by Oliver Platt as a naive bumbler. Caine himself arrives in Diggstown provocatively, in a flamboyant Mercedes, and starts out by putting down Gillon's lesser Mercedes. It's all minutely calculated.
Through a con-job too twisty or delicious to detail, Caine wagers Gillon that he knows a boxer who can beat, in succession, any 10 Diggstowners within 24 hours. He brings out of retirement his former accolyte, boxer Honey Roy Palmer now 48 and played by fiftysomething Louis Gossett.
We are in redneck fantasy land of course, with a messy start, with low blows dealt to logic, and a preordained, outcome. But the specifics of the scam, no matter how silly, give us a most enjoyable escalation of tricks, hustles, mind games and surprises, and they are not easy to guess.
Director Michael Ritchie broke into features with two serious and sensitive Robert Redford items, the sports movie "Downhill Racer," and the political "The Candidate." He then shifted to comedy, with the "Smile" --a satire starring Bruce Dern in one of his best roles -- more sports films ("The Bad News Bears," "Semi-Tough, " "Wildcats"), the "Fletch" movies, and some lesser ones.
"Diggstown" is a comeback of sorts for Ritchie too, with Woods as the locomotive. Insouciant, assertive, supremely confident and humorously laid back, the star is in line with other Ritchie protagonists, like Burt Reynolds or Chevy Chase. In their skills, their duel and their sub-Armani suits, Woods and Dern are well-matched opponents.
The film's subject is cleverly calculated. As in "The Sting" (which inevitably comes to mind), there's gratification in following likeable con-men defeat villains and bullies. The story does get too convoluted and improbable for its own good and drops loose ends and non-sequiturs as it goes, but not to an annoying degree.
This is an all-male picture, except for Emily (Heather Graham) a Georgia peach with legs and brains. She is a small, merely sketched cog in the intricate mechanism, but, against the expected cliches, she is no bimbo and does not get romantically involved with Woods.
The other woman glimpsed is Gossett's wife who asks him "Who are you going to call at this hour?" He replies : "People who are up at this hour." Quoted out of context, this may not sound funny, but in the film's circumstances, it is. So are many other lines, especially those delivered by Woods with perfect timing, body and facial English. Says he to Gossett, on his last legs in the ring : "Remember.... you are black." "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" " I don't know.... I 'm trying to inspire you... It's the "Roots" kind of thing."
The brutality of the "Diggstown" fights is mitigated by their air of make-believe and self-mockery, although there are two, inexcusably mood-killing lapses, both unnecessary events dealing with non-boxing violence.
The movie may not be everyone's tasteful cup of tea, but as canny, mass-appeal entertainment with two-dimensional characters, it is a refreshingly plebeian pitcher of beer.
[Publ. Febr. 1992]